The health and environmental hazards of “festal” or disposable plastic bags and other disposable plastics in Ethiopia

Abebe Haregewoin, MD, Ph. D.

Maryland, USA

The scourge of “festal” aka plastic bags in Ethiopia and Africa

Thousands of plastic factories all over the world and in Ethiopia are producing tons of plastic bags, which are very popularly and increasingly used by the Ethiopian people for shopping purposes because of its ease, cheap value and convenience.  However, their hazards on human and animal health and negative impact on the environment are never questioned or openly studied in any depth in our country. The scourge of plastic pollution has far-reaching environmental, animal and human health consequences all over the world including Ethiopia. Plastic trash discarded in the environment impacts communities on multiple levels: such discarded plastic bags filled with rainwater could attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes or breeding ground and aggravate this important health hazard. Dumped in rivers and lakes, plastic bags choke, strangle, and kill marine life. Plastic trash can block storm drains and cause flooding—a devastating 2015 flood in Ghana caused by plastic-blocked drains killed 150 people.  It is obvious that in recent years the blockage of storm drains in Addis and other major cities and towns in Ethiopia resulted in flooding of streets, swelling of rivers, and caused flood-related casualties and property destruction. Due to improper disposal systems, many stray animals end up consuming plastics and get entangled and suffocate to death or die due to intestinal obstruction. Many abattoirs find plastic bags in the intestines of animals that are slaughtered for public consumption. Thousands of animals worldwide including cow, goats, sheep, dolphins, turtles, whales, penguins are killed every year due to plastic bags. The ingested plastic bag remains intact even after the death and decomposition of the animal. Thus, it lies around in the landscape where another victim may ingest it.

Harmful effects of “festal” is caused by breakdown products

The most harmful effects of plastics beyond hideous tatters and refuse blowing in the wind actually occurs long after they seem to have disappeared from sight as they fester in the sun and breakdown into even more harmful tiny and microscopic particles due to a process known as photodegradation. These tiny particles known as microplastics become easily distributed in the environment and are impossible to clean up or remove and continue to wreak a havoc on the environment and pose danger to the food chain. It is estimated that complete degradation of plastic products in the environment can take up to one thousand years. The presence of these microplastics in rivers and lakes in Ethiopia is unknown.

Toxic chemicals released during plastic manufacture processes are major sources of the negative environmental impact. A whole host of carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and hormone-disruptive chemicals are byproducts of plastic production, and they inevitably find their way into the environment through water, land, and through air pollution. Some of the more familiar compounds include vinyl chloride and dioxins (in PVC), benzene (in polystyrene), phthalates and other plasticizers (in PVC and others), formaldehyde, and bisphenol-A, or BPA (in polycarbonate). Many of these chemicals are persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—some of the most damaging toxins on the planet, owing to a combination of their persistence in the environment and their high levels of toxicity.

Because of the omnipresence of plastics, the complexity of the substances that they release into the environment and the potential interaction of these substances, many questions exist on the safety of plastics for humans and the environment. One of the components of plastics known as biphosphenol A (BPA), which is considered a health hazard has been banned from use in baby bottles and other products in the USA and many other countries. Di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), often used in PVC products, leaches out easily and has been found to have negative impacts. Several rodent and human studies have reported correlations between DEHP exposure and harmful health effects, including changes to the female and male reproductive systems, increased waist circumference and insulin resistance. Plastic bags which carry hot foods in them can release harmful chemical contents into the food and thus cause long-term health problems.

The good news – we can stop the scourge of “festal” in Ethiopia

Some countries in Africa have recently had success in the fight against plastic pollution. Kenya’s ban on single-use plastic bags, the most radical in the world has already taken effect.  The Kenyan ban came in on 28 August 2017, threatening up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of $40,000 (£31,000) for anyone producing, selling – or even just carrying – a plastic bag.

A year after Kenya announced the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags, and eight months after it was introduced, the authorities are claiming victory – so much so that other east African nations Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering following suit.

Rwanda, outlawed them in 2008. Eight other countries: Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mauritania, and Malawi are considering bans. The Government of the Gambia decided to completely ban the importation of plastics into the country as of 1st July 2015. The Ethiopian partial ban on plastics can not be taken as a success story given it’s apparent lack of success due to inadequate monitoring and enforcement.

The Kenyan success story has shown significant downstream effects on businesses, consumers and even jobs as a result of removing a once-ubiquitous feature of Kenyan life. “Our streets are generally cleaner which has brought with it a general ‘feel-good’ factor,” noted the enforcement director of the National Environment Management Authority. “You no longer see carrier bags flying around when it’s windy. Waterways are less obstructed. Fishermen on the coast and Lake Victoria are seeing few bags entangled in their nets.” In Nairobi’s shantytowns, one immediate impact was on the practice of defecating in a plastic bag, tying it up and then throwing it on to the tin roofs, a convenience known as “flying toilets”. The steps taken by the Kenyan ban on plastic bags has actually eliminated this odious flying problem as well as the more serious environmental and health hazards of plastic contamination of the food chain.

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. Plastic bags pollute both water and soil. Plastic bags are usually lightweight and can travel very long distances by either water or wind and affect rural areas far from where they are used in large quantities.
  2. The plastic bags are made from non-renewable sources and highly contribute to climate change. Most of plastic is made of polypropylene which is a material manufactured from petroleum and natural gas. All of the materials are non-renewable fossil fuel-based materials and through their extraction and even production, greenhouse gases are created which further contribute to global climate change.
  3. Plastic bags do not degrade. Plastic bags never degrade and become dangerous microplastics which pollute the environment and release toxic chemicals into the food chain resulting in health risks to humans and animals.
  4. Plastic bags are harmful to wildlife and marine life. Birds, animals and marine life such as sea turtles and fish often mistake the plastic bag and other plastic materials for food and consume them.
  5. Plastic bags are harmful to human health. There are some chemicals from the plastic bags which can disrupt the normal functioning of hormones in the because of pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) together with PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) which are hormone disrupting.
  6. Plastic bags are not easy to recycle. Plastic bags are said to present significant challenge in terms of recycling. Recycling facilities do not have the capacity to recycle plastic bags and thus do not accept them. Therefore, the actual recycling rate for plastic bags is around 5%.
  7. Bans should be adopted because they are greatly effective at reducing plastic big waste. China banned plastic bags and four years later, the amount of plastic bags thrown into the environment had reduced by 40 billion. In Africa total ban seems the only enforceable and effective action governments can take to control the hazards of plastic bans. Partial bans or limits ultimately fail because of the lack of enforcement as well as bribery and corruption as in Ethiopia.
  8. Plastic bags trash streets and clog drains. Cleaning plastic bags costs a lot of money and the hazards of clogged drains on flooding of streets and rivers can cause incalculable hazard to property as well as animals and humans who are carried away by the swollen rivers.
  9. With a ban on plastic bags, there would be improved technology to replace them with recyclable and reusable bags eco-friendly. Many countries that banned plastic bans divert the economy to create eco-friendly factories that manufacture reusable fabric-based bags and other similar environmentally friendly products.
  10. Banning plastic bags helps save money. These plastics cost a lot of money because the final costs from expensive petroleum products just for single use until they will be thrown away.
  11. UNEP secretariat has recommended a ban on all plastic bags worldwide. This means there are a thousand and one reasons for the ban of plastic bags. If some governments cannot ban them completely, then they can make the people pay heftily for using plastic bags to discourage its usage.


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